Villages Folk School in Van Buren County | Van Buren County: The Perfect Stage for Traditional Arts

Faculty members of the school include quilter Joy Hanson, artist Yvette Jury, blacksmith Bill Printy, potter Betty Printy, spinner Pat Crawford, sculptor Chris Bennett, artist Gin Lammert, photographer Mary Sederberg, and gardener Kevin Bentziner.

From the figurative ashes of a forest heritage center in Van Buren County, the Villages Folk School arose like a phoenix.  With two beautifully treed parks in the county, Shimek State Forest and Lacey-Keosauqua, Iowa’s oldest state park, local visionaries dreamed of building a forest heritage center. But when hopes for the center were dashed by a feasibility study, an alternative option—in fact, a recommendation—came to light: a folk school offering traditional arts. 

A cadre of dedicated volunteers quickly and enthusiastically embraced the idea. Over the next year and a half, community planners tthrew themselves into this labor of love as they faithfully attended meetings and eagerly made presentations.

As it turns out, Bentonsport business owners Bill and Betty Printy had just the experience for such an undertaking. Ten years ago they developed a small-scale folk school as part of their business, Iron and Lace. Fans of the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina, the Printys felt that Van Buren County was a prime location for a folk school, since the closest folk schools in the Midwest—The Clearing in Wisconsin and North Woods in Minnesota—are over 600 miles away. 

The Perfect Rural Setting

Van Buren County, a region of rolling hills and river valleys in southeast Iowa on the Missouri border, is a place of contradictions, with high-speed Internet access but nary a stoplight. So the idea of mixing historic buildings and website registrations didn’t seem odd at all. Instead of having a relatively small campus with centrally located classrooms, dormitories, and dining halls, all of Van Buren County is the campus. 

“Just think,” said Bill Printy, “we’ll have the biggest campus of any other folk school—and with the longest stretch of the Des Moines River running through it!”

From the southernmost village, Mt. Sterling, with its extensive wetlands, to the northernmost town, Stockport, where  historic buildings nestle amidst a hickory grove, each location offers a distinctive experience. The county boasts two picturesque National Historic Districts—in Bentonsport and Bonaparte—as well as a National Archeological site where one can participate in a supervised dig to find rare 150-year-old-molds from the Bonaparte Pottery. Bonaparte, officially the smallest Main Street community in America, has received several awards for its enterprising ideas.

In times past, all of the towns in Van Buren County competed to be the best. Today, the villages have kept their individuality intact while working together to make the folk school happen. So many ideas have been floated by enterprising townsfolk that they can’t all be implemented during the first year.

The Villages Folk School board members say they want to build on the strengths of this charming area and its skilled residents. This is especially important in the current economic climate, as people are trying to think of ways to convert their talents into businesses. A folk school is the perfect endeavor for a county that embraces the values of a simpler time, when life was less frantic and creativity was part of life.

“People think we are backward because there aren’t fast food restaurants or chain stores in the county,” said one board member. “But they need to know we aren’t backward, we are just laid back.” 

Workshops for Everyone

Classes range from photography, watercolor, sculpture, pottery, and nature study to spinning, quilting, writing, blacksmithing, and other time-honored skills. They are taught by a wide range of accomplished instructors, many of whom have national and international reputations.

Instructor Betty Printy, for example,  has her distinctive pottery in the capitals of 50 states. A potter and weaver, Betty  has spent a good share of her life learning her crafts. “You’ll never live long enough to learn everything,” she says, so every day is another learning experience for her. Betty joins all the school’s instructors in their eagerness to share this excitement with others.

Earlier this year, the first Villages Folk School pottery class was taught by Betty and Mary Sederburg, both well-known Van Buren County artisans.

The school has not one, but two blacksmiths, Bill Printy and Mark Heisdorffer. They are teaching workshops at the Forge and Anvil Academy, one of a handful of places in the U.S. where artistic blacksmithing is taught. Hundreds of students have learned to forge beautiful items. 

One-day Raku Pottery workshops will be held Bentonsport in July and September. For a nominal workshop fee, class participants can glaze and fire their pieces, and take home their beautiful creations that same day. 

Artists Gin Lammert, Yvette Jury, and John Preston are offering workshops in watercolor, pastels, portrait sketching, and painting, as well as hosting Plein Air workshops in various picturesque locations. 

In October, expert bird watcher Raymond Morris will conduct a tour throughout Van Buren County for observing the fall migration along the Mississippi Flyway. Transportation will be included, allowing birders to fully enjoy the myriad of bird species found in Van Buren County.

Rug weaving, quilting, woodcarving, horse care, scrapbooking, gardening, and a writing retreat are among other offerings still to come over the next five months.

Another World, Yet So Close

The late Bentonsport artist Wendall Mohr always instructed his students to “leave something to discover.” That’s a wonderful way to describe the Villages Folk School. After spending a relaxing weekend learning something new, visitors will want to return, knowing that more discoveries await around a bend in the river or a turn of the road.

Please visit for more information.       

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